I always wondered what the story was behind Nina Simone’s epic “Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter,” every time I hear it; it’s a vicious song, clearly one born of anger with the lyrics just filled with invective and some of the best insults ever put to music (I’m particularly partial to “Blowing minds is a thing of the past/You blew your chance, that’s why you never last/You want to be a graduated mother/But in reality, you’re just another brother,” but the very next couplet – “You think you’re slick, but you could stand a lot of greasin’/The things you do ain’t never really pleasin'” – comes very close), which makes me curious who, exactly, the song was written about, and what was the igniting event. We’ve gotten used to diss songs in recent years/decades, I think, with rap in particular making it into enough of a common thing that it feels like a legitimate genre, but this song still feels light years ahead of everything else in this particular school, a song to play people who think that “You’re So Vain” is both mysterious and cutting.
Turns out the song wasn’t written by Simone; it’s actually the work of Alline Bullock, who turns out to be the sister of Tina Turner, the woman behind some classic Ike and Tina stuff, including “Bold Soul Sister” (Maybe my favorite Tina Turner song). The original (?) Ike and Tina version of the song is enjoyable enough, but lacks the viciousness of Simone’s; it seems more generically R’n’B in its arrangement, lacking the unnerving cruelty and detachment that drips from Simone’s voice in her version and the space present in the later arrangement.
Simone’s take on the song is, in fact, funky – Although it took me a couple of listens to really listen to the lyrics and realize that the funk of the title is the nasty funk, the kind that you don’t want to have; the idea of something being “funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter” is actually weirdly and wonderfully dirty, when you think about it – but it’s a different type of funk from Ike and Tina (Nikki Costa, who did another version that’s clearly based on Simone’s, tries for the coolness of Simone but gets it horribly wrong, sounding like a soulless remake and missing the point entirely, especially when the electric guitar comes in and flattens everything around it); it’s restrained for the most part, stripped down to the essentials (bongos, bass, vibes) so that the focus is very clearly on Simone’s voice – and when the drums come in at 2:25, it has such an impact that you sit up and take notice. The original version of this song is fun, rowdy and rude, but when Simone takes it on, it becomes a scalpel of pure spite, reminding the world that she’s something to be reckoned with.